Old-school horror films can leave female viewers feeling squeamish for all the wrong reasons. There’s the relentless pile-up of women’s bodies; the puritanical morality creepily at odds with the camera’s leery gaze, and the Final Girl who makes it to the end credits intact because she’s somehow purer than her dead peers.
If film-making has long been a boys’ club, horror often feels like one of its least welcoming spaces for women. The stereotypes it trafficks on screen are matched with sexist preconceptions from industry gatekeepers. In 2018, Jason Blum, head of horror studio Blumhouse Productions, sparked outrage when he blamed his company’s non-existent track record with women on... the women themselves. “There are not a lot of female directors, and even less who are inclined to do horror,” he said, as if girlish temperaments were stopping them from stepping up, rather than a system stacked against them. Yet despite the odds, the past few years have seen an explosion of compelling, challenging and yes, downright terrifying horror movies helmed by women.
Shirley, a nightmarish alt-biopic of writer Shirley Jackson, is director Josephine Decker’s attempt to place one of the architects of modern horror back at the centre of the genre. “She is the foundation for so many horror writers’ work — Guillermo del Toro, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King all cite her as a huge influence,” she explains. “And yet somehow, Shirley Jackson is not a household name in the way that they are.”
Decker’s film refracts Jackson’s life through the prism of her chilling stories, resulting in a disorientating mood piece imagining the author’s all-consuming obsession with her younger tenant. As with so many of Jackson’s tales, its horror lies in “human relationships — the psychological terror that’s brewing between these two women, the ways that they might be unravelled by each other.”
There’s a similarly toxic dynamic at play in Saint Maud, the debut from director Rose Glass, which arrived in cinemas this month. Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a devout palliative care nurse who becomes consumed by her contradictory feelings for her patient Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), prompting a conversion attempt that quickly turns sinister. These poisonous pairings almost feel like a caustic commentary on the relationship-driven films assumed to be the only thing women want to make and watch. For Glass, Saint Maud is “first and foremost a character study — a very messed up, dark, but hopefully fun one,” she says. “Horror felt like it was the best vehicle. You can delve into complicated, interesting psychological stuff. I enjoyed playing with those tropes and hopefully subverting people’s expectations.”
Indeed, this new wave of female-led horror plays refreshingly fast and loose with the genre’s rulebook. It encompasses everything from Nia DaCosta’s upcoming Candyman reboot, which promises a new take on the classic slasher film resonant with racial politics, to emotionally-driven scares. In Relic, a haunted house tale from debut director Natalie Erika James, the supernatural threat is secondary to the terror of watching a parent grapple with dementia. It’s perhaps the first time that horror has made a subtle comment on how the burden of caring often falls disproportionately on women.
Meanwhile, Rose: A Love Story, a vampire horror-slash-relationship study directed by Jennifer Sheridan, premiered at the London Film Festival this month. It focuses as much on the pain and banality of looking after a loved one with a hidden, debilitating condition as it does on jump scares and blood. “What’s exciting for us is trying to push against the grain and not make your normal standard horror, where you’ve got a beautiful woman who just gets stabbed and dies,” producer Sara Huxley says.
There are more prosaic reasons why female film-makers, who still tend to be seen by industry decision-makers as a riskier investment than their male peers, are finding themselves drawn to the dark side. Horror thrives on isolation, claustrophobia and, well, a lurking sense of existential dread, all of which come surprisingly cheap. It’s a genre that allows film-makers to make a virtue of financial limitation — as Rose producer April Kelley explains, it’s a natural home for “incredible filmmaking which doesn’t need a lot”. Both her film and James’s Relic are anchored in one isolated setting, but the film-makers’ skill means this never feels limiting. A good horror film can scare you senseless without lavish locations, big crowd scenes, fancy CGI and, crucially, the huge budgets all of those things require.
Horror aficionados are both a lucrative (a 2018 study found they spend more at the box office each month than the average cinemagoer) and a pleasingly meritocratic bunch: it typically doesn’t take a big name star or director to lure them in, just a brilliant concept and word-of-mouth recommendation. Saint Maud has both, and is sitting at number two in the UK box office. This combination of low production costs and a receptive market would naturally appeal to any fledgling director (indeed, Glass says she is “looking forward to when it’s not even notable that a woman created something”) but it’s not hard to see why female filmmakers, who on average receive budgets 25 per cent smaller than those dished out to men, are embracing the genre to make their mark on the industry.
On-screen and off, horror has long been mired in what Huxley calls a “macho, very male-dominated” culture, from the preponderance of underdressed, over-sexed slasher victims to “really intense night shoots”. Naturally, there’s an element of anarchic joy for both female creators and female horror fans — “a generation of women who are pissed off with the industry,” as Kelley puts it — in seeing cinematic conventions overturned and industry gatekeepers challenged.
Decker believes her female-led creative team “made sure Shirley didn’t get toned down, that she stayed wild and visceral and amazing”, while for Huxley, there’s a thrill in being able to regain “ownership” of the genre. “Women were always the victim in horror,” she says. “I think to be a female director, a female head of department and sit there and give your female characters identity, strength, a voice is really exciting.”
Relic is out today. Shirley is released on October 30